In class today, we briefly mentioned the question of whether or not an author must claim some sort of authenticity or entitlement before writing of a certain experience or in a certain voice. Although there’s probably a good case to be made in either direction, it’s worth pointing out that values of “authenticity” in examining a work have oscillated over time, and continue to vary according to place. Several nations’ literary traditions originated in myth and allegory, while others have long exalted personal narrative over fiction. It seems to me that contemporary America often criticizes authors for being insincere. In the world of Wikipedia and Google, writers are no longer shrouded in mystery. We are no longer subject only to that personal information which they wish to divulge. And if we find that an author has been exploring topics (especially tragedies) he or she has not personally experienced, we tend to think of that as “exploitation.” So I’m curious how you all feel about the great William Carlos Williams’ “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime.” Even in 1921, a few years before the Facebook era, Williams’ name would have been proudly displayed on a byline and there would have been no ambiguity as to his gender- this poem is clearly fiction. It is clearly written from a narrative voice that does not belong to the author. It contains pain the author cannot possibly understand. We are reading about the unique and internal suffering of a denomination of people under which the author cannot be classified.
So is this “okay?” Is Williams reaching out a hand in empathy but revealing ignorance? What if he wrote a poem about the “black” experience or the “gay” experience or the “Japanese” experience? Is he entitled to adopt these voices, or is it reductive of the experiences of the people they represent?
Personally, I think it’s more than “okay” for an author to try and represent the lives he or she hasn’t lived firsthand. In fact, I find it a rather noble (if dangerous) pursuit and often prefer to sense distance between an author and his topic than to be thrust head first into a writer’s life story. There is of course a way to tactfully approach these things, and I’ll certainly acknowledge that many authors use a foreign, minority or subjugated voice to wring pathos out of otherwise tepid writing. But in Williams’ case, I feel as though impersonal voices allow him to open up to an emotional landscape he would otherwise avoid. He certainly doesn’t have the heart-on-a-sleeve frankness of a Mina Loy, but he isn’t a snobby intellectual, either. If his poems are any indication, he’s deeply concerned with human feelings, particularly those of other people. And I think that his curiosity was probably his strongest muse.